Kim’s Top 5: Unsung Film Noir Creatives
If the last few weeks of articles has shown us anything, it’s that film noir presented audiences with no shortage of amazing viewing. There are more great movies than one can count, and definitely far more performances than it’s possible to spotlight in a single listicle. Believe me, I keep trying. It’s hard!
This week, I wanted to change things up a little bit and turn my attention to the talent working behind the camera during this era. More specifically, I’m turning an eye towards the sometimes lesser-known, or unsung creative talent of the period. This list is looking at some of the writers, directors and producers whose names you might not be as famliar with. Or in some cases, perhaps you know their names, but might not necessarily think about amazing their contributions to film noir.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5: Unsung Film Noir Creatives
5.) Jules Dassin (1911-2008)
With his work on classics like Night and the City (1950) and The Naked City (1948), Jules Dassin stands shoulder to shoulder with John Huston, Howard Hawks and Robert Siodmak among the legendary directors of film noir. However, just as Dassin showed signs of reaching his creative stride, the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the resulting blacklist derailed his Hollywood career.
According to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times, Dassin was born in 1911 in Connecticut, but his family soon relocated to Harlem. By the 1930s, he’d started working as an actor in what the article describes as “Yiddish theater”, as well as in the Borscht Belt theatrical circuits in New York.
Dassin’s earliest directing work came in the early 1940s on movies like Nazi Agent (1942), The Affairs of Martha (1942) and Reunion in France (1942). By 1944, he directed a perrenial favorite, The Canterville Ghost. However, his best and by far most remembered works came at the close of the decade, as he settled into film noir when he directed The Naked City and Night and the City.
1950 saw the release of Night and the City, Dassin’s final film for a number of years after he was named as a communist in front of HUAC. The resulting supoenas and blacklist saw available work in the United States dry up, forcing the young director to relocate to Europe. However, as the New York Times article points out, even work overseas remained lean for a time.
Dassin’s later years saw him return to form, but he never ventured back to the Hollywood eastablishment. Movies life Rififi (1955), Never on a Sunday (1960) and Topkapi (1964) remain Dassin’s best remembered works of this era, showing just what Hollywood was missing in loosing this tremendous creative talent.
Dassin passed away in 2008.
4.) Richard Brooks (1912-1992)
Okay, some of you are likely out there waiting to jump in here. “Richard Brooks isn’t an unsung talent!”. The writer and director’s filmography reached impressive levels beginning in the middle of the 1950s with his work on movies like Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Elmer Gantry (1960). Before all of these legendary works though, Brooks was a young writer working on such legendary films noir as Brute Force (1947), Crossfire (1947) and The Killers (1946).
According to his Los Angeles Times obituary, Brooks was born in Philadelphia to factory worker, immigrant parents, “(They) shaped Brooks’ life better than they knew, giving him not so much a love of words, but a reverence for words, and the stories and ideas that could be made from them”.
Brooks earliest writing work in the industry came in the 1940s. His filmography lists ‘additional dialogue’, original story and adaptation credits on small genre pictures like: Men of Texas (1942), White Savage (1943), and Cobra Woman (1944). However, in 1947, he received screenplay credit on Brute Force before following it up with the equally influential Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) (with the legendary director John Huston).
It was towards the middle of the 1950s when Brooks evolved into the director he’d be remembered as for the rest of his career. On top of the works mentioned above, he’s also listed as director on Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967).
Brooks passed away in 1992.
3.) A.I. Bezzerides (1908-2007)
The writers are always the quiet ones. A.I. Bezzerides is a figure who I’ve long associated with westerns, thanks to his role in creating the legendary 1960s television series, The Big Valley. However, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the novelist turned screenwriter played a key role in the evolution of film noir with credits on: Kiss Me Deadly (1955), They Drive By Night (1940) and On Dangerous Ground (1951).
Bezzerides’ 2007, Los Angeles Times obituary reports that he was born in Turkey before his family reloacted to the United States while he was still very young. They settled in Fresno, and according to the article, his father started work as a trucker hauling produce. This period in his life would go on to become tremendously influential to the young man, as evidenced by his depiction of produce truckers in Thieve’s Highway (1949).
Bezzerides’ earliest works are actually short stories and novels, which he began writing during the 1930s. However, his name was already appearing on-screen by 1940, when his novel “Long Haul” was optioned by Warner Brothers to become, They Drive By Night. According to the article, the studio paid Bezzerides $2000 and put him under contract as a screenwriter.
Throughout the following decade, he would truly put his stamp on film noir with his work on the films mentioned above–among others. In fact, in terms of sheer influence to film noir as a movement, Bezzerides’ works should stand alongside those of legends like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
In his later years, Bezzerides jumped to televison. As mentioned above, he served as one of the creators on the legendary Barbara Stanwyck western, The Big Valley as well as contributed scripts to series like: The Virginian, Bonanza and 77 Sunset Strip.
Bezzerides passed away in 2007.
2.) Ida Lupino (1918-1995)
Ida Lupino— probably the best known member of this Top 5– initially entered the industry as an actress, her filmography touting credits as early as 1931. The fierce performer remained a screen mainstay throughout the 1950s, often playing the sultry femme fatale types always needed in film noir. However, by the end of the 1940s, Lupino began transitioning behind the camera. Throughout the next decade, she would not only direct, but also write and produce movies like Outrage, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist.
Lupino’s 1995, Los Angeles Times obituary reports that she was born into a showbiz family in London. In fact, the article points out, the Lupino’s could trace their show business lineage back to the 17th century. They were entertainment mainstays, and Ida seemed destined to continue their legacy.
Lupino starting acting in her teen years while still in the United Kingdom; however, by the 1930s, she found her way to the United States. She bounced through the industry throughout the decade, appearing opposite everyone from Bing Crosby to Jack Benny. Though, unlike many, she evolved with the times and by the film noir era Lupino tackled the sultry femme fatale roles studios often offered her with relative ease.
Her initial directing credits came early in the 1950s. At the same time, she was also writing a number of scripts for movies like Private Hell 36. Many of her early credits also fit neatly into film noir (particularly, Outrage and The Hitch-Hiker). Meanwhile, Lupino also stuck her toe into producing with the formation of her production company, The Filmmakers, and later as one quarter of the team tied to Four Star Televison.
Meanwhile, Lupino segued neatly into TV in her later years, becoming one of the most prolific televison directors (and the only woman in the field for a long time) during the 1960s. Her name can be seen on most of shows you’ve watched on Nick-at-Night, from Gilligan’s Island to Bewitched and even The Twilight Zone.
Lupino passed away in 1995.
1.) Virginia Van Upp (1902-1970)
We all know it’s possible to count the women in positions of power during the classic Hollywood era on the fingers of one hand. Virginia Van Upp emerged in the industry as a writer in the 1930s. However as the decades turned, Van Upp’s creative stock increased, resulting in her eventual promotion to executive producer at Columbia where she produced not only Affair in Trinidad (1952), but the iconic noir Gilda (1946).
Interestingly, a look through newspaper coverage during the 1930s and 1940s shows Van Upp receiving a tremendous amount of publicity. However, despite what seems like widespread knowledge of her career during the period, her name simply hasn’t transcended the decades for contemporary audiences. This is a goal I’ve long had in my research, spread the good word about Virignia Van Upp.
Information on Van Upp’s early life is surprisingly tough come by. A Los Angeles Times article dated November 3, 1946 traces the rise of Van Upp’s daughter, Gay Nelson, who had recently been cast in Millie’s Daughter (1947), her debut role. The article recounts that Virginia’s mother bought her to Hollywood at a young age. (Helen Van Upp was reportedly a doctor). Virginia started acting at 5 years old under Thomas Ince, while her mother worked as a title card writer and cutter. Van Upp continued her work in front of the camera before, according to the article, retiring when she turned 15.
This started Virginia on her trajectory behind the camera. Her earliest known credits come as a writer on family comedies in the 1930s. However, an article in the Los Angeles Times dated December 14, 1944 reports that Van Upp had recently been promoted by Harry Cohn. Her new role was that of an executive producer “in charge of top-braccket pictures”, a move reportedly intended to reward her for producing Cover Girl (1944). It was during her tenure at Columbia that Van Upp produced Gilda, and later Affair in Trinidad.
References to Virginia’s career slow down into the 1950s. In 1954, the Los Angeles Times reports she was at work scripting The Big Whisper at Republic before jumping to RKO for Love’s Lovely Counterfit in 1955, according to Louella Parsons.
Vann Up passed away in 1970.
There’s little I find more entertaining than doing a deep dive into the filmographies of talented and brilliant creatives. There are so many names and stories which deserve to be celebrated outside of the oft-recounted profiles of film noir’s celebrated auteurs. Keep watching, keep reading, and by all means, keep finding new films. There’s so much out there for us still to discover. Happy Noirvember!
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